In the middle of World Water Week this week, Sunsari district bore the full fury of the Kosi. This wasn’t a natural disaster, it was man-made.
The mountains are ravaged by landslides, and in the Tarai monsoon floods cause more and more economic damage because of the destruction of the watersheds and the blockage of natural drainage systems due to infrastructure.
A recent breach in the Kosi caused so much misery in Sunsari that less devastating floods elsewhere received scant national attention. Were it not for the high-profile visit of Norwegian Minister for Environment and International Development Erik Solheim to Mahottari, one of the most flood-prone districts of the country wouldn’t even have got a passing mention in the media.
Suga is a village not far from the place Solheim visited. Like most villages in the district, it is cut off by floods for a few weeks each year. Adults wade through knee-deep water to buy essentials from the nearest bajar. Children miss school as buses, rickshaws and horse-drawn carts cannot operate along the Jaleshwar-Matihani road. Even ambulances can’t get there.
So when someone in Suga has saved enough money?usually from remittances?the first thing he does is build a house in Janakpur. Perhaps that’s the reason land prices in Janakpur are higher than in Biratnagar or Birganj even though the town has little to offer in the way of urban services.
Janakpur’s biggest draw is that it’s the only town between the Kosi in the east and the Bagmati in the west that never floods. Prosperous villagers build houses here to keep their valuables safe, educate their children and ensure that the sick and elderly can be kept safe during the monsoon. An unfortunate consequence is that the town sucks scarce resources away from the rural economy.
During my childhood, most farmers in Suga had boats. Today they have motorcycles instead. Large ponds at each corner of the village used to have two functions: they absorbed some of the flood waters, and their elevated banks prevented houses from being washed away. Most villages also had mango orchards on their most vulnerable sides to dissipate the power of the floods, to provide firewood for the winter and to produce luscious fruits in the summer.
Such natural barriers have mostly disappeared. The rich have migrated to the towns, leaving the poor behind. Whether it’s the flooding of villages at the local level or climate change at the global level, the story is the same: it’s the poor who suffer most when the natural environment deteriorates.
Some action can be taken to improve matters. As in Bangladesh, villages in the Tarai-Madhes need easily accessible, earthquake-proof, flat-roofed flood shelters built on high ground and equipped for helicopter evacuation during times of calamity. These can be used for other purposes the rest of the time. And there is no reason why school holidays in flood-prone areas can’t be rescheduled for the monsoon, as used to be the case.
While the political parties continue to squabble over who will control the Ministry of Water Resources (through which Rs 100 billion pass each year from the Nepal Electricity Authority alone), flood victims in Sunsari wait for assistance, and long-term measures to reduce floods remain a fantasy. Cursing India is perhaps the least harmful way to hide our collective incompetence.